Millions of children around the world remain trapped in child labour. Ebenezer Agoa was six years old when he was sent to work on Lake Volta: a notorious hotbed of child slavery. Check out 15 powerful photos that capture life on the lake.
22 Mar, 2018
1. Welcome to the largest man-made lake in the world.
Lake Volta in Ghana is the largest human-made lake in the world.
It is the source of life for scores of small settlements that cluster at its banks: entire communities make their living on the boats and in the fishmarkets.
But hundreds of fishermen (or, more accurately, fisherboys) are not there by choice. They're trafficked into the horrors of child labour on the lake; their families deceived, their former lives as distant as dreams.
2. "Why wouldn't you do it?"
"Child trafficking is a poverty issue," says Henry Tetteh Amanor, centre director of the GH-0209 New Ningo Good Shepherd Methodist Child Development Centre.
"If [you had] three children who are not in school because of lack of funds and someone takes one away to be put into school, and even gives you money with which you can register the other two, why [wouldn't you] do it?" he says.
"So caregivers give their children away for an amount as little as 300 cedis, about 78 US dollars."
3. "They can never find their way back home."
"Sometimes, the [traffickers] name towns very close to the child's community as the destination," says Henry. "But in actual fact they take [the children] very far away, where [they can never find their] way back home."
Lake Volta's fishing industry is a significant element of Ghana's economy, but it's built on the backs of vulnerable children, most of whom are younger than 10. The trafficked are given the most dangerous and difficult jobs; they're subjected to more intense violence; they work longer hours and have their food and pay withheld.
4. Poor households are the most vulnerable to traffickers.
Poor households like Ebenezer's are the most vulnerable to traffickers.
Ebenezer was just an infant when his mother died, leaving him orphaned. His grandmother, Comfort, came to collect him and take him back to her home in Greater Accra.
"I take care of nine grandchildren," says Comfort. "Their fathers have abandoned them."
5. His promises were as empty as his smile.
Ebenezer was six years old when a man appeared at his grandmother's house.
He owned a fishing boat, he explained. He was looking for boys to come and work on the waters of Lake Volta, to learn the ways of the fishing boats.
He promised a good job, a steady wage, enough food, a safe place to sleep.
His promises were as empty as his smile.
6. She would have a little more for the children who remained.
Comfort gathered fruit and vegetables to sell at the local markets for a few dollars at a time.
"I [don't] have the financial means to provide for [my grandchildren] the way I really want, but God gives me the energy to labour to feed them and myself."
So when the man, a relative, offered to take three of the children to work on his fishing boat, she was torn. But they would have something to eat and somewhere to sleep, and she would have a little more for the children who remained.
She made her decision.
She let them go.
7. Lake Volta was made by drowning a forest.
For three years, Ebenezer worked the lake. He cast the nets and heaved them in until his shoulders burned and his hands cracked and bled.
The men who had created the lake had drowned a forest. When the dead trees' fingers snagged the nets, Ebenezer dropped into the murky water to untangle the rope. As he fumbled in the dark-eyes stinging, lungs burning, panic rising-he prayed he would find his way back up, would breathe again.
That God would let him survive where so many others had not.
8. Ebenezer prayed for deliverance.
As the months fogged with exhaustion and slipped away, he prayed for deliverance.
"I used to sit by myself and think of my future," says Ebenezer. "I wanted to leave, but I couldn't. I had no money for transport. I used to pray that God would help me leave that man."
9. "Parents love their children but the recruiters deceive them."
Like Comfort, most caregivers who entrust their children to the lake's embrace believe that they will live in decent conditions.
"[Parents] love their children," says Henry. "They try their best, but the by-product of poverty … they don't know the consequences, because the recruiters lie to them. And when you are poor, you are vulnerable."
Many believe that learning the fishing trade will give their children skills and the opportunity for a better life.
The reality is different.
10. There is no other word. They are slaves.
Trafficking is illegal in Ghana. But on the water, there is no law. Children are routinely beaten with paddles, heavy ropes, electrical cables. Many have spoken about sleep deprivation, malnutrition, sexual assault and grievous injuries; dark testimonies of witnessing unspeakable crimes. They are deprived of medical attention, education and recreation.
There is no other word. They are slaves.
11. "I went to bring them back."
Comfort's fear for her grandchildren wouldn't let her rest.
"One day … I was praying and reflecting, when the thought just hit me: 'I did not go to school; why then will I allow my grandchildren also [to go without] school?' So I went to bring them back."
Henry explained to her that Ebenezer and his cousins could receive support through the local church and Compassion. The grinding poverty that had pushed her into her fateful decision wasn't insurmountable.
Spurred by a fresh hope, Comfort enlisted Henry's help and set out for the lake.
12. For more than three years on the lake, Ebenezer was paid just US$50.
When Comfort tracked her grandson down, she wept with relief that he was still alive. When she learned of the abuse and despair he'd suffered through, she wept again.
With Henry's support, she negotiated Ebenezer's release.
"If not for Henry's support to bring these children back from the Volta Lake, their lives would have been destroyed," says Comfort. "There is no hope over there."
For more than three years on the boat, for thousands of hours of labour and heartache, for over a quarter of his life to that point, Ebenezer was paid US$50.
13. In the Lake Volta region, 1 in 3 children are child labourers.
In the Lake Volta region, around one in three children are engaged in child labour - one in five in its hazardous forms.
"When I come back to the lake, I feel sad about how I'm with Compassion but so many others are not," says Ebenezer. "I don't want anything bad to happen to those boys … pulling in nets, not in school. I know [they're] thinking about their friends in school."
14. Once enslaved, today Ebenezer is an aspiring mechanical engineer.
Now in the final years of high school, Ebenezer hopes to become a mechanical engineer. He has suffered through great trauma but survived. In the years since he left the lake, he has been registered with the Compassion program, protected by his mighty grandmother, nurtured by the love of his local church, and encouraged by his sponsor, Daniel.
"I have suffered enough in my life and so I don't want my family or my children to suffer. I want them to acquire some knowledge, so they can lead a better life," he says.
15. "So that children will be free, and free forever."
Henry continues the fight against trafficking to this day. He travels far and wide to educate parents and community leaders about the brutal reality of life on Lake Volta and the coercive methods traffickers use to prey on the innocent.
"It is the right of children to be protected," says Henry. "More children need to be sponsored [through Compassion] so that we can empower [them] - and they, in turn, can impact others all over the country.
"So that children will be free, and free forever."
Watch Ebenezer's Story
Compassion works to transform the lives of individual children and encourage their long-term development. The Child Sponsorship Program connects one sponsor with one child living in poverty so they can invest into that child's future.
Sponsor a child and give a hope more powerful than poverty.
Please note: The children pictured do not work in the fishing industry; they recreated scenes of life on Lake Volta willingly and with permission.
Words by Richard Miller
Photos by Helen Manson
Restore a Generation
Two more years of school could lift 60 million out of poverty. Give today and restore a generation.